The misunderstood life and career of Andre the Giant

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

Andre the Giant took the answer to the one question most people who saw his career as pro wrestling’s “Eighth Wonder of the World,” to the grave with him: How tall was he and how much did he weigh?

We’ll never know, because not even the wonderful HBO documentary on his life, produced by Bill Simmons and directed by Jason Hehir, could answer that one.

Dave Meltzer, the ex-Yahoo Sports columnist and preeminent pro wrestling journalist, has repeatedly said Andre was 6 feet 9 inches tall. He was billed between 7 feet and 7 feet 4 inches during most of his pro wrestling career, and estimates of his weight went up to 520 pounds.

The reason the documentary, which debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO, is so good is that Hehir went to great lengths to try to answer the question. From the WWE’s Vince McMahon to other wrestlers, doctors and family members, Hehir and his staff were relentless.

“We asked it of everybody,” Hehir told Yahoo Sports in a telephone interview. “And pretty much, everybody just lied. Vince said, ‘I don’t know if he was 7 feet 4, but for sure he was 7 feet.’ He just mumbled about it.

“The reality of it is that we tried pretty hard to track down any sort of official document that would have an official measurement. We had some of his state wrestling licenses, but it was clear that he, or whoever his handler was, was just scrawling numbers down on a piece of paper and perpetuating the myth that this guy was anywhere from 7 feet to 7 feet 4 and anywhere from 380 to 520 [pounds].”

Hospital records that would have shown it were destroyed, so how tall Andre was will remain a secret of history.

But the documentary shines because it isn’t a collection of his pro wrestling highlights and feats in the ring, though there are plenty of those included in this intimate 84-minute portrait.

It tells the story of a man, a human being, and his struggles to live with acromegaly, and to live in a world not made for a man his size.

It is a highly personal portrait of a complex man who lived most of his life alone and ill-suited to the world around him.

Professional wrestling is a world based on mythologizing people, and that was true in Andre the Giant’s case, as well. So as he was researching the film, Hehir came up with an ironclad rule: He would never use any hearsay.

“If someone told me, ‘I heard he drank 200 beers at one sitting,’ no, we weren’t using that,” Hehir said. “But [ex-wrestler Ric] Flair said, ‘I saw him drink 106 beers.’ That was a different story.”

Director Jason Hehir and his staff were relentless in creating the HBO documentary on the life of Andre the Giant. (Courtesy WWE)
Director Jason Hehir and his staff were relentless in creating the HBO documentary on the life of Andre the Giant. (Courtesy WWE)

The documentary touches on Andre’s early life in France, and includes interviews with his family. It traces his wrestling history and his numerous feats of strength in the ring, but it also takes you away from the arena to the difficulties he had in doing his job.

There is one still photograph in the documentary of Andre seated in two seats in an airplane, still looking horribly uncomfortable. It is something that anyone, even those much smaller than Andre, could relate to and understand.

That’s where this film succeeds. It delves into his brief acting career and has several astonishing anecdotes from his time on the set of “The Princess Bride.”

Andre was in so much pain that he couldn’t perform one scene that was required of him. But actress Robin Wright pointed out Andre’s kindness and how that when she was cold, he placed his massive hand over her head to help warm her.

Much remains unknown about Andre, who died at just 46 in Paris in 1993, more than 25 years ago. But this film gives viewers a wonderful insight into the life of Andre Rene Roussimoff, the human being, and not so much about the apocryphal character, Andre the Giant.

Wrestling fans will no doubt enjoy hearing the behind-the-scenes stories and rarely seen photographs. But it’s a much broader film than that and anyone who appreciates the human struggle will enjoy this look at a misunderstood man’s life and career.

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